Stanley Matthews

Football's Pioneers: Stanley Matthews

Leicester City's working relationship with De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History & Culture continues as Dr. Neil Carter recalls Stanley Matthews, who was one of the most eminent players of the 20th century.
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Matthews (1915-2000) is one of the most famous players in the history of English football. His fame is largely based on his longevity as a professional footballer, which allowed a mystique to grow around him. He made his debut in 1932 before eventually retiring in 1965, aged 50.

Of course, there was the 1953 ‘Matthews’ Final’ – importantly, an early televised match – when he inspired Blackpool to come from 3-1 down, with 22 minutes to go, to beat Bolton Wanderers 4-3. Matthews’ medal from that game was sold at auction for £220,000 in 2014.

However, it should be remembered that, first and foremost, Matthews was from Stoke-on-Trent. Born in Hanley, he started and finished his career with Stoke City. Matthews was at his peak before 1939 when he was renowned for both his dribbling skills and speed off the mark.

His time at Stoke though was not without its fluctuations and, as such, this revealed something about the nature of the relationship between him and his football audience. Firstly, on 8 February, 1938 it was announced that Matthews had asked the Stoke board for a transfer.

It had followed a dispute over his benefit payment at a time when players were subject to football’s restrictive labour relations based around the maximum wage and the retain and transfer system. His transfer request created much controversy in the Potteries.

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Stanley Matthews
Stanley Matthews

Stanley Matthews would eventually join Blackpool with the backing of the Stoke public despite earlier protests.

He was the team’s star player, an English international, and there was a groundswell of opinion that he must stay. A week later, a protest meeting was held. Its convenors were prominent pottery manufacturers, one of whom reported that industrial output among his workers had fallen dramatically due to the prospect of Matthews’ transfer.

Undoubtedly, concerns over the local economy and how a good team could put a town on the map were motivations for their involvement. The vast majority of Stoke fans, though, were working-class males and letters published in The Sentinel reflected their support for Matthews to stay.

Following a meeting between the club's directors and the meeting’s convenors, Matthews announced that he was staying. 

Later events, though, portray Matthews’ relationship with Stoke fans in a different light. In 1946, a Stanley Matthews Fund was set up as a token of appreciation from the people of Stoke for putting the Six Towns on the map.

But partly because it was so soon after the war, there was a backlash in The Sentinel. The fund had hoped to raise £5,000 but instead £1,160 was donated. In May 1947, Matthews eventually left Stoke for Blackpool, where he now ran a hotel.

This time there was no protest, but no resentment either from the club or its fans. Instead, it was generally felt that Matthews had given great service to Stoke City and deserved to play out his few remaining years in Blackpool where the focus of his life, post-football, had clearly shifted. 

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